The Pendulum Rule: Why We Swing to Extremes in Self-Improvement

Everyone harbors numerous beliefs about themselves and the world around them. Some are false, distorting reality and triggering difficult emotions. These can be addressed by reverting to childish coping mechanisms or through mature, fact-based decisions. Before mastering the latter, one must contend with the pendulum rule. 

Beliefs Influencing Action

Every human action is conditioned by a multitude of external and internal factors. We understand the reality within its context, constraints, and the people involved. Our senses, skills, and knowledge also play a role in guiding our actions.

A key internal factor affecting our decisions is our beliefs about ourselves and the world. Many of these beliefs are formed in childhood, and influenced by upbringing, peers, and culture. Others develop from our experiences in relationships, work, and activities.

However, some beliefs are false and unverified by rational analysis. They are based on messages imprinted in us from childhood, influencing adult decisions.

“You Always, You Never”

If, as a child, someone often heard “you can’t do it,” “leave it,” “I’ll do it,” or “look at your brother, do as he does,” it is likely that they harbor a false belief about their incompetence as an adult. 

Other common falsehoods include feelings of insufficiency, the need to earn love, distrust in others, or the belief that all people are liars. False beliefs may also relate to a lack of aptitude for sports, certain jobs, or relationships. Many are based on stereotypical ideas, relying on unnecessary generalizations and quantifiers like “always,” “never,” and “everyone.” 

These beliefs are triggered by various events, especially in professional contexts requiring decision-making, eliciting difficult emotions like fear, anger, or shame. They require adopting appropriate coping mechanisms to function relatively normally in daily life.

Three Coping Strategies:

Succumbing to false beliefs involves three coping modes.

  • Subordination

Here, one accepts the false belief as true. Like a submissive subject, they agree with what the belief dictates. For instance, if criticized at work as proof of incompetence, they accept it as fact and adjust their actions accordingly.

  • Avoidance

This involves evading the belief to avoid unpleasant emotions. Criticism at work, for example, might lead to dismissing the issue, switching topics, ending the conversation, or even leaving the room to escape discomfort.

  • Overcompensation

This is doing everything to prove the belief wrong. Paradoxically, such actions reinforce the belief because they stem from a belief in its validity. If accused of incompetence, overcompensatory coping might mean increased work effort, highlighting one’s achievements and skills, or attacking the accuser by pointing out their faults.

Each of these coping methods, while calming emotions, is not beneficial for personality development. They are “childish” modes. A child responds to criticism by succumbing out of fear, withdrawing, pretending not to hear, or becoming aggressive. Adults adopt mature behaviors. However, if one has long acted in childish modes, learning new ways of behaving requires time and effort.

pendulum rule
Phot.: Brett Jordan / Pexels

Know Thyself

The first step in learning new behaviors is recognizing the existence of false beliefs. But how does one identify a lie believed for years? Several tools can aid in facing the truth: questionnaires on false beliefs, observing and being sensitive to words like “always,” “never,” and “everyone,” often linked with unverified judgments. Contact with others, psychotherapy, and trying new things, especially those initially unappealing, can also be beneficial.

It is crucial to base self-understanding on facts, not opinions or self-conceptions. If one discovers that a belief in their own incompetence is false, they must focus on events proving this.

Identifying false beliefs is important, as is realizing the primary coping method used against them. Then, the challenge is to do something contrary to this usual response.

Switching Sides

The aim is not to replace one coping mode with another. Behavior change is not about belief but reality. Informed action, countering unconscious reactions born from false beliefs, is essential.

Confronting the validity of an accusation, emotion, or thought opposes fleeing the issue. Instead of compensatory and aggressive actions, submissiveness and dialogue are needed.

Consider the example of being accused of errors at work. The initial defensive reaction, stemming from a false belief in one’s incompetence, can be countered by recalling professional successes. Instead of succumbing to belief, one can approach work with renewed vigor and energy to strengthen positive self-perceptions.

In the initial phase of adopting new behaviors, they may often be inadequate. Someone usually submissive might act aggressively or unpleasantly. Those who typically avoided issues may now dwell on details and delve into irrelevancies. The compensatory active type might relinquish control, avoiding action altogether. This can cause bewilderment and surprise but aligns with the pendulum law.

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The Pendulum Rule

Immature response modes are akin to a pendulum held at an extreme angle. Learning new, healthy behaviors requires releasing the pendulum and allowing it to swing to the other extreme. Only then can a person begin to learn balanced behaviors that do not serve to prove or disprove false beliefs about themselves or others.

In the initial phase, it is necessary to permit these extremes, accepting that the pendulum may swing back to its starting position.

As in the example of being accused of errors at work, the false belief in one’s incompetence may still arise. However, self-awareness and learning new behaviors will not lead back to immature submissiveness, avoidance, or overcompensation. Instead, there can be a focus on facts and taking actions appropriate to the situation.

Translation: Klaudia Tarasiewicz

Published by

Dariusz Dudek


Editor and copywriter who majored in theology. Interested in self-development and psychology. Always on the lookout for new amazing ideas.

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